The 700-seat Ramallah Cultural Palace, on whose premises is the grave of Palestinian poet Mahmoud Darwish, was overcrowded on September 9. Over 850 people packed the cinema hall to watch Najwa Najjar’s premiere of her second long feature film, “The eyes of the thief”.
The Palestinian filmmaker’s film follows her successful “Pomegranates and Myrrh”, which opened the Dubai Film Festival in 2008 and has racked up a huge number of awards.
The name of the film (in Arabic Ein al haramieh) refers to a rather desolate location on the valley between Nablus and Ramallah.
The location used to witness robberies, which made the British mandatory government build a police station to protect travellers.
The British barracks that still stand in the area have long been abandoned, but the Israelis used the location to set up a permanent checkpoint.
In 2002, at the height of the second Intifada, a lone Palestinian sniper gunned down 11 Israeli soldiers.
Israeli experts at one time thought the sniper might be an older Palestinian who had participated in World War II, or a fighter from the Balkans who infiltrated the occupied territories.
The Israelis eventually arrested and convicted 22-year-old Taher Hamad, a member of Fateh’s Al Aqsa Martyrs Brigade, who said he picked up the shooting skills from his grandfather who was a hunter.
Najjar picks up this heroic resistance act; she says her film is a psychological drama about a father searching for his lost daughter in the city while keeping a dangerous secret to himself.
Action in “Eye of the thief” takes place mostly in Nablus, and also in Bethlehem. It was shot in 25 days; during this period, there were nightly incursions in the nearby Balata Refugee Camp.
Tareq, the lead actor, is Egyptian Khaled Abu Naga, who came for the four-week filming by special permit. The lead female actress is Algerian Souad Massi.
Like in her previous film, Najjar attempts to use cinema to break stereotypes and question the status quo.
At a time resistance is equated to terrorism, she highlights the one case in which Palestinian resistance targeted the occupying Israeli soldiers.
And at a time resistance fighters in Gaza and other places have become synonymous with Islamic jihadists, Najjar, presents a fighter who is a Palestinian Christian, like herself.
Without making a political statement, Najjar presents the way occupiers are, not only restricting movement, but also stealing land and water.
The word “eye” in Arabic also means water spring. Thus the tile of the film has yet another, subtle, layer of dealing with the occupation.
Perhaps Najjar’s biggest accomplishment, however, is that she humanises the Palestinian resistance.
Showing the hero as a sensitive person who is seeking to find lost family, with hints at some forbidden love story, makes him much more complex and much more human than most portrayals of Palestinians, either as terrorists or as heroes.
And when most Palestinian films attempt to show Palestinians in a one-dimensional positive manner, that is beyond criticism, Najjar presents a much more complex —and realistic — picture of the internal Palestinian fabric.
She does not try to sugarcoat Palestinian life, nor does she attempt to show the entire Palestinian history in a single film, but gives a glimpse at some elements of Palestinian life.
“Eyes of the thief” can easily pass for an international commercial film in which the bourgeois businessman is the bad guy who is doing the business of the occupiers, while benefiting himself.
Fighting against many odds, including the usual difficulties in funding a major film, absence of a cinema industry and a public that wants a one-dimensional film, Najjar has again succeeded in creating a complex film that cannot be entirely understood in one showing.
Najjar’s films are the kind of creative work that represents an important part in any society.
Her latest movie is an important creative and artistic document mirroring and commenting on Palestinian life under occupation, with its difficult aspects and complexities.